band, formed in Griffnock
, in 1994 and idolised and loathed in equal amounts ever since. Bis consists of Manda Rin
(keyboards/vocals), Sci-Fi Steve
(guitar), and John Disco
Hold it right there…
Two things you may have noticed: The first is that Bis have chosen to give themselves ridiculous stage-names. In their defence, these names were given with a healthy sense of irony (see footnote for more on the ironic Bis…), and seem to sum up something about the band's general childishness. That said, recent press statements have spoken of band members ‘Amanda’, ‘Steve’ and ‘John’. This might suggest that the infamously childish Bis are growing up.
Another thing to point out about the band is the conspicuous lack of a drummer. Or a bassist. Bis used to perform with rhythm tracks just being played back from the keyboards, in a kind of Casio-esque style, although they now occasionally use a session drummer when performing live. And they never really needed a bassist, since their sound is distinctively lo-fi and tinny. Think transistor radios, but faster.
The band got together when brothers Steve and John decided that their bedroom twiddlings might amount to something, and decided to enlist school friend Amanda as their vocalist. This turned out to be a decisive move, since Manda Rin’s screeching vocals have become the trademark sound associated with Bis.
Two years later, with an average age of 18, Bis made pop history by being the first ever unsigned band to perform on Top of the Pops. They performed ‘Kandy Pop’, and the press came in like vultures, declaring the unbound genius of these three Scottish kids.
This lasted about six months. Then suddenly Manda Rin’s screeching wasn’t so cute anymore, and the press began ripping Bis to pieces.
Since then, it’s been up and down, but Bis have managed to maintain an original sound throughout it all. They’ve gone from being Japan’s biggest superstars, to unsigned nobodies, back to superstars, and back to unemployment, so often that it’s hard to keep count. The media just can’t seem to decide whether Bis is the future of pop, and the work of three musicians possessed by genius, or an incomprehensible racket made by three children from Glasgow. This results in a completely obsessive fan-base, and violently negative reviews.
Their music has been described (on their own site) as ‘Electro-pop, Post-punk and Riot-Grrrl’, but this sounds vaguely like Buzzword Bingo to me, or possibly an indie rock version of the Electronic Music Genre Generator. Perhaps you would do better to imagine your 9-year-old sister playing with a Casio keyboard and giggling, whilst that big guy from down the road played punk guitars very loudly and shouted about corporate fascists. At the same time. And you’re listening to it all coming out of a speaker with no woofer cone. Something like that anyway…
Bis and the record labels
Independence. It’s a tricky word, especially in the music industry. Bis are well known for their hatred of major labels, and their attempts to remain artistically independent at any cost. Of course, these efforts are not always successful, but at least they’re trying.
This love of independence is obvious throughout their releases, from sarcastic songs such as ‘Bis vs. The D.I.Y. Corps.’ (Who’s lyrics include ‘This is funded by a major but shallowly packaged to pretend that it’s cool…’), and their very particular cartoony aesthetic, which makes most of their album covers look like they’re cut-and-paste scrapbooks. In fact, this look is most likely inspired by work done by all three of them as teenagers, when they published the fanzines Funky Spunk and Paper Bullets.
Their first release, the ‘Transmissions from the Teen-C tip’ EP, was released on Acuarella, an independent Spanish record label, on the strength of a Bis gig in Glasgow. Acuarella proved very friendly to the band, but were not really big enough to get them any recognition, and certainly not in Britain, where the Spanish label was more or less ignored.
Attention began to grow when Bis released the 1995 ‘Disco Nation’ EP with Glasgow’s highly respected Chemikal Underground label. The label, though still small and independent, was credible enough to get Bis some much needed attention, and at this time both the NME and the mighty John Peel began promoting Bis.
The next release on Chemikal Underground launched them into their (first) fifteen minutes of fame. ‘The Secret Vampire Soundtrack’ was the EP that made Top Of The Pops producer Ric Blaxill fall in love with the band and ask them to perform on national television. This rocketed sales, and the band reached number 25 in the UK charts. On the strength of this, their next release was put out on their own label, Teen-C-Recordingz. ‘Bis V.s The D.I.Y. Corps.’ received a lot of praise, and did remarkably well for a record with no money spent on marketing or record shop deals: it sold 20,000 copies in the UK, and 10,000 more abroad. Clearly, the future of independent pop had arrived.
The bidding war began (apparently they received more than 50 offers), and Bis chose to remain as independent as they feasibly could, and so signed up with the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal (and with Wiiija in the UK). This not only gave them a lot of artistic freedom, but also pushed them into the consciousness of the American music press, who began to look fairly favourably on the Beastie’s newest acquisition. ‘This is Teen-C Power’, a compilation of previous releases, did well in America, especially on the college radio circuit (it came in the top 3 of the CMJ chart).
1997 saw the release of the first full-length Bis album, ‘The New Transistor Heroes’. It charted terribly in the UK, since they had fallen out of the national eye, but did amazingly well in Japan (over 100,000 copies sold), and also met with moderate success in the US. At this point, Bis made a conscious decision to move away from the UK market, and concentrate on the US, Japan, and Australia. To be fair to the British press, the album was a little patchy, since Bis are really at their best in the 3-minute-pop-song format, and only got the hang of full-length albums more recently.
Intendo followed in 1998, another Grand Royal release, which consisted of B-sides and other assorted offerings that had not previously been released in the States. A bit of a mixed bag, but released with the sole intention of getting their back-catalogue heard in the US, with hindsight this is one for the collector, not the casual listener.
Just as Bis were getting used to the idea of success outside of their native UK, they released Eurodisco, which did amazingly well in the UK and Europe. Once more, the media were falling over themselves to get into bed with Bis…
It all came to nothing, of course. Eurodisco was the first single from the Social Dancing album, which didn’t do anywhere near as well as the single, and once again placed questions over the future of the band.
Fast-forward a few years, and Grand Royal is no more. The latest Bis album, Return to Central, was released in 2001, and marked an attempt to move away from their earlier sound, and incorporate some more interesting rhythms and more obvious hip-hop and Kraftwerk references. The album confused many people, but did at least show that Bis were not a one trick band, and they managed to raise a few eyebrows as well. Return to Central was released on SpinArt, after a one release deal with Lookout records (the release in question being ‘Music for a Stranger World’) was not extended. In fact, ‘Music for a Stranger World’ was also their last release with Wiiija in the UK. Not a very well received EP…
All this changing of labels must say something, but I’m really not sure what. One thing’s for sure though, Bis are unique, and provoke strong reactions with everything they do. Unfortunately, sometimes this reaction is just plain dismissal. As their official site puts it, the difficulty facing Bis is that they are ‘equally respected in both the punk and electronic communities but reviled by those who can't bear to see the two mixed’
If you want to hear something different, that is trying to push back the boundaries of pop, whilst still retaining a sense of independence, you could do much worse than listen to this band.
Outside the band
Outside of the usual Bis releases, the band are also credited as producers on Mogwai, Craig Armstrong and Old Solar releases, and have remixed for Arab Strap, Mount Florida and Elbow.
All three band members extensive outside interests. Amanda writes cartoons for the Japanese magazine ‘Buzz’ and presents a radio show, ‘Air’, on Radio Scotland. John has worked as a producer and remixer, notably on Shonen Knife’s ‘Wind Your Spring’. Steve is kept busy by maintaining the Teen-C-Recordingz label, originally founded by Bis, and has released tracks from Lugworm, Pink Kross and Dick Johnson. Both John and Steve also DJ around Glasgow under various pseudonyms, including Freak Electric and Dirty Hospital.
I also have it on good authority that, outside the band, Manda Rin is a complete bitch. Unfortunately, neither of us have been able to substantiate these claims as yet...
More bizarrely, Bis have modelled clothes in New York for Alloy Clothing, and are responsible for the Casio G-Shock and Baby-G Bis watches (there are 6 of them, and they play Bis tunes when the alarm goes off). These watches apparently started a bit of a cult following in Japan. If you know any more about this, I’d love to hear some kind of explanation…
And yes, finally, I’ll admit it: Bis wrote and performed the theme song for The Powerpuff Girls. I've never seen the show, but I hear that this is not as shameful as it appears at first glance...
Bis have toured or performed with (amongst others):
EPs and singles
'Ironic Bis' Anecdote
It's 1996. I'm watching Bis play at the Lowlands festival
. There are only about 200 people there, since very few Dutch people had heard of Bis at the time. The entire audience is desperately trying to look cool
. Everyone's alternative, baby
Then Sci-Fi Steve steps up to the microphone, and shouts out 'Everybody say ROCK!!'.
The audience look on in silence, desperately confused by this random commercial outburst. This isn't what they came to see. This isn't alternative.
Sci-Fi Steve, the skinny, spotty Scottish guy, takes the microphone again, and mumbles, 'erm... sorry... I'll try and give you a cooler word to shout next time...'
For me, this is why Bis are a great band.